Gown, shorts, both, Valentino. Sandals, Jimmy Choo, $795. Photographed by Allie Holloway; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau
“Her hair is dark blond, maybe honey,” says Eve Polastri in the third episode of Killing Eve, the BBC America hit that returns for a second season this month. Eve (played by Sandra Oh) works for MI6 and has become obsessed with a terrifyingly efficient assassin known as Villanelle. Staring off into the middle distance, she continues describing her nemesis while a police artist sketches. “She had very delicate features. Her eyes are sort of catlike. Wide, but alert. Her lips are full. She has a long neck, high cheekbones…. She’s totally focused, yet almost entirely inaccessible.” “Uh,” the artist interrupts, “so is that like a square face, or an oval face?”
In real life, Jodie Comer, 26, the actress who plays Villanelle, has a heart-shaped, luminous face. We meet at a hotel bar in Manhattan’s NoMad district on a cold afternoon in early January. Wearing a lime green cashmere turtleneck under a plaid coat, Comer enters holding a can of Diet Coke in one hand while checking on the state of her lipstick with the other. “Has it smeared?” she asks, explaining that she ate a sandwich on her way over. It has, but in a perfectly imperfect way. It’s Comer’s appearance that gives the show its narrative frisson—there’s no way such evil could exist behind a countenance so fair, right?—and leaves Eve fumbling for language that might untangle its power over her. Season two picks up in the delightfully gory pool of blood Villanelle staggered away from at the end of season one, and Comer, for one, is really looking forward to the audience seeing how her character reacts to what Eve did. (Spoiler: She stabbed Villanelle in the gut with a utility knife.) “It may not be what [viewers] think it’s going to be,” she teases. “But that’s all I can say.”
As a conversationalist, Comer is attentive and intelligent, a careful observer of human behavior. As an actress, she’s drawn to characters that have a certain duality, and what she calls “an inner resilience.” As the so-called other woman in BBC One’s Doctor Foster, she appears guilty as charged; as Chloe on My Mad Fat Diary, from the British network Channel 4, she seems oblivious and narcissistic. As Elizabeth of York in The White Princess (Starz), she inhabits a character whose loyalties to family and country are frequently uncertain. In each show, there’s a moment when the perspective shifts, and we see that these women are as vulnerable as they are misunderstood. Often, Comer mines the drama that exists between a polished exterior appearance and a messier interiority.
Killing Eve might be the most depraved show in Comer’s oeuvre, but it’s also the most comedic. Like Comer, Villanelle is an avid people watcher, but in spite of all the observing and mimicking, Villanelle doesn’t seem to learn—or care—what makes one response right and another wrong. “I’ve always said she probably watches a lot of reality television,” Comer says, leaning back into a leather couch. “I think she’s fascinated by people, but the way she reacts to situations isn’t necessarily normal.” Villanelle’s most chilling affect is her playfulness—it’s also the one quality that seems to be authentically her own. In these moments, we see her as a stunted child, still learning her own capacity for brutality. She commits atrocious crimes with an almost feral femininity. In one scene, she poses as a young perfume entrepreneur and uses feminist rhetoric to trick a powerful businesswoman into ingesting a toxic chemical; in another, she stabs a man in the eye after asking him who designed the silk throw on his bed. One man, desperate for his life, asks, “Who are you?” “Huge question,” she responds, before shooting him point-blank.
Born and raised in Liverpool, Comer was 12 years old when her drama teacher recommended she audition for a role in a BBC Radio 4 play. She didn’t come from a traditionally artistic family (her father is a masseur, and her mother works for a local public transport company), and the gig served as Comer’s introduction to the concept of acting as a career. Comer credits Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge with expanding her understanding of what good acting could be. For many years, Comer equated the craft with a kind of invisibility: “quiet, less, and whispered,” she explains. But now she feels empowered to be “bold, loud, and colorful” in her work, and it shows onscreen. Oh describes the volatile dynamic between her character and Comer’s: “The reason we’ve been able to hold on to that mystery is because we have a tremendous amount of trust in each other. As actresses, we can go deeper into those dark places because of that trust, because our characters want to believe they understand the other in a way that no one else can.” While shooting the first season, Comer wore a specific perfume on set, a sensory detail only Oh could get close enough to notice. “I always felt like you would smell her before you saw her,” Comer explains, and while it’s true viewers can’t get that olfactory effect, that kind of detail allowed her to replicate the feeling of knowing someone is close—just not how close. Oh shrieks with laughter when reminded of it. “It was fucking brilliant! It ignites all these emotional pathways for me.”
A fierce protector of her own privacy, Comer tends toward seclusion while filming. “It can be intense, always having eyes on you,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll lock myself away and just go into a bubble. And then I have to go home and catch up on life.” When she’s not working, she’s at home with her parents in Liverpool, attending concerts with friends she’s had since high school. While in London for a job, she considered buying some watercolors and painting during the breaks, before realizing she would just rather…not. Up next for Comer is Free Guy, an action comedy costarring Ryan Reynolds as a video game character who gains sentience just in time to realize his creators are planning to shut down his world. Once again, she plays a woman with two selves, this time literally: a programmer and her avatar, Molotov Girl. “I’m interested in exploring our fascination with personas,” she explains, “the version of ourselves that we make.”
Hair by David Colvinfor Bumble and bumble; makeup by Deanna Melluso for Tom Ford.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of ELLE.